Skip to content

Review of Anne Isba, Gladstone and Dante and Ruth Clayton Windscheffel, Reading Gladstone

2011 June 21
by rmcwilliam

Gladstone and Dante by Anne Isba (Suffolk: Royal Historical Society Studies in History New Series Volume 49, Boydell and Brewer, 2006), xi + 155 pp, £45 (hardback), ISBN 086 193 2773

Reading Gladstone by Ruth Clayton Windscheffel, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, xvi + 330 pp., illustrated, £55 (hardback), ISBN 978 0 230 00765 9.

In his second-hand copy of Erasmus’s Colloquia, William Ewart Gladstone found the previous owner’s inscription: ‘Samuel Powell Purser bought this book on the 11th day of July being Saturday in the year of grace 1840’.To this note, he laconically added his own: ‘and sold it very soon after, WEG.’ Today, if you go on a visit to St Deiniol’s Library, the institution Gladstone founded at his home village of Hawarden, North Wales with the aim of providing retreat and resources for clergymen and other like-minded readers, you are very likely to encounter this volume as part of your guided tour. Initially derived from Gladstone’s private library of about thirty-two thousand volumes, St Deiniol’s contains about ten thousand which carry his personal annotations or other marks of ownership, but the Colloquia tends to get brought out thanks to this one scribbled remark, dubbed by library staff in a spirit of affectionate mockery, ‘the Gladstone joke’.
This is a little unfair: Gladstone was not above writing in the front of a medical study of corpulence an entertaining description of a fat woman of his acquaintance being carried into dinner, for example, or of bellowing ‘No!’ on the title page of a work entitled Should the Revised New Testament be Authorised? But as Ruth Clayton Windscheffel shows in her absorbing and mostly excellent new study, Gladstone was nothing if not a serious reader, in every sense. Serious in the sense of being committed, as anyone with thirty thousand books plus in their library is likely to be. To this Windscheffel adds a host of delightful detail to illustrate the elevated place that Gladstone assigned to reading, and how determined he was to get on with it himself at all costs; visiting Lichtenstein, she tells us, he once sat quietly absorbed in his carriage while his brother got into a fight with a postmaster outside. Gladstone was also a serious reader in the sense of being methodical. It is not every private man who establishes a borrowing register when lending books to family, friends, neighbours and servants, who designs a new system for shelving them, or who notes down the books he has read in his diary every day for most of his (long) life. And such seriousness has put some people off. Heather Jackson, for instance, only gives the Gladstone collection a couple of paragraphs in her well-known Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (2001) on the basis that Gladstone was (in her words), ‘not a very forthcoming annotator’. Certainly he is no Coleridge, whose annotations were so performative that friends would lend him books with specific instructions to write in them. Mostly, Gladstone’s marks to his books tend to be symbols, dates, words, or short phrases. Overall he is pragmatic, careful, and consistent. But sometimes it is sadly the case that the methodical can be overlooked, the serious taken insufficiently seriously. Windscheffel’s achievement in Reading Gladstone is to successfully persuade us that Gladstone’s absolute commitment to book-bothering in all its aspects, from the personal rhythms and habits he developed in his private reading to the eventual foundation of his very own library, deserves to be taken very seriously indeed.
There remains the question, however, of precisely how we are to take it seriously, and here I should declare my interest. I have spent the last eighteen months at St Deiniol’s compiling a database of Gladstone’s books and marginalia, so in a very real sense I require less persuasion than most. Nevertheless, as with any study based on unexplored primary material, the significant amount of raw data relating to Gladstone’s reading needs to be marshalled for some purpose if it is to be of interest to any but the converted. Anne Isba’s Gladstone and Dante, while being on the whole fluently written and engaging, falls into this trap somewhat. Gladstone translated parts of the Divine Comedy, annotated his own edition, engaged in public debate on whether Dante studied at Oxford (Gladstone believed passionately that he did), and made plentiful references to reading the works in his diary. But Isba struggles to do much with this information beyond telling us about it, and some of the wider connections she does make – both men were anti-papal, both had reservations about the culture of certain Italian cities (Naples in Gladstone’s case, Florence in Dante’s), both were interested in the figure of the idealised woman – are too generic to really convince. Certainly the book is not in the same class as Isba’s Gladstone and Women which remains the definitive introduction to its subject, packed with insight, discrimination and humour. In Gladstone and Dante, there is a sense that these qualities have sunk rather under the weight of information available. There is, for example, a very odd and lengthy section meticulously listing Gladstone’s birthday reading which has little connection with Dante at all, beyond the presumption that both Gladstone and Dante shared a belief in ‘life as progress towards the divine’ (93). ‘Because it is there’ is not in itself a sufficient justification for climbing the mountain of evidence surrounding Gladstone’s reading – particularly if you want to take others with you.
Designed as a root and branch treatment of Gladstone as reader, Windscheffel’s book is (understandably) much more interested in examining what his reading tells us, and the various uses to which it can be put. Particularly intriguing are the sections in which she shows how Gladstone himself made very profitable use of his ‘scholar-politician’ image, and some of the best material here successfully challenges the assumption that he played an essentially passive role in its construction. Another key theme in Reading Gladstone is how Gladstone’s essential belief in the high seriousness of reading came to be challenged in various ways, and how his view of its morally transformative power was called into question. A hoary old topic in every sense, the saga of Gladstone’s infamous ‘rescue’ visits to prostitutes gets revitalised here through the device of actually examining the specific texts that Gladstone read out loud to his would-be cases (Tennyson was his particular favourite). But perhaps Windscheffel’s book succeeds most of all because she simply has a fascinating tale to tell. The great untold story of Gladstone’s reading is a story of places; the places at home in which he liked to read, and the places where he housed his books. It is undoubtedly in her careful analyses of Gladstone’s private library at Hawarden Castle, and her alert account of the founding of St Deiniol’s Library and Gladstone’s hope that it could provide a focus for ‘divine learning’ in all forms and across all disciplines, that Windscheffel makes her best bid to get Gladstone recognized as a key figure in the history of Victorian reading.
All this good work, however, sometimes gets a little undermined by Windscheffel’s reluctance to engage fully with the wider issues of what precisely constitutes a valid methodology for a history of reading. The question of whether we can accurately re-construct any person’s ‘reading experience’ (to use the current phrase) has invited as much scepticism as it has enthusiasm as this field has grown over recent years. Windscheffel makes reference to the critical developments in her introduction, but there isn’t much indication that they have informed her own analysis. It is surprising, for instance, that she credits Jackson’s Marginalia as an influence and then leaves us in the dark as to how exactly this influence has been exerted, especially given Jackson’s less than enthusiastic response to Gladstone as reader. And while Windscheffel certainly has no problem marshalling the primary evidence to discursive purpose, occasionally she only achieves this by quietly smoothing out methodological awkwardnesses. A good example of this occurs in a passage on Middlemarch, described by Gladstone as an ‘extraordinary, to me a very jarring book’. Windscheffel speculates interestingly on the possibility that this remark specifically relates to Casaubon, the portrayal of whom would have raised profound anxiety for anyone who held as elevated ideas about the virtues of methodical and directed learning as Gladstone did. A fine thought, but one which by the next page has hardened into a near-certainty: ‘Gladstone’s unsettled response to the book was rooted in the way he related the negative of Casaubon and his barren scholarship to his own altruistic understanding of humanistic study’ (139). A few pages later, Gladstone’s ‘disquiet when reading of figures such as Casaubon’ has become an assumed fact (148). Similarly, we are told with startling confidence that what lies behind Gladstone’s description of Peacock’s novels as ‘unreadable’ is Gladstone’s antipathy to fiction that features no models of life for a reader to emulate. Elsewhere, an ‘NB’ written by Gladstone beside a passage in Carlyle moves from being described as ‘special notice’ to ‘approval’ within a paragraph (198).
This kind of thing becomes a matter of concern after a while, but it is not enough to derail Reading Gladstone as a major contribution to Victorian history, even if it limits its scope as a contribution to reading history. My only other significant quarrel is with the book’s conclusion, where Windscheffel seems compelled to impose something like a happy ending (perhaps the downside of her knack as a storyteller). In founding his library, the argument runs, Gladstone was enshrining in bricks and mortar the ethos of the controversial liberal catholic volume Lux Mundi, and the plea of its editor Charles Gore and his fellow contributors for theology to be less inward-looking:

In the combative intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century, Gore and Gladstone saw a clear choice for theology. Either it could continue a threatened withdrawal from current intellectual debate, prompted largely by ignorance and fear of new developments apparently antagonistic to faith, or it could stand its ground and keep the channels of communication open. (178)

But Lux Mundi is a difficult and complicated work, and while its enlightened position on the cross-fertilization of knowledge is laudable, it was not new (how is the above much different from the position taken in Essays and Reviews thirty years before?) In fact, it illustrates the intense struggle going on within the High Church at this time to determine how concepts like dogma, apostolicity, and orthodoxy were going to take shape in light of this new knowledge. Given that this struggle substantively revolved around tensions between the authority of biblical text and priestly tradition, or book and book-keeper to put it another way, the connection might have been more persuasively argued through shared anxieties rather than shared pieties.
Reading Gladstone would be valuable even if it were just the first scholarly history of St Deiniol’s Library. Happily both Windscheffel’s reach and her grasp extend much further than that, and she has produced a stimulating and wide-ranging survey of all aspects of Gladstone and his reading, only occasionally let down by a reticence to explore larger methodological issues and ambiguities. For a brief period in the autumn of 1889, Gladstone considered calling his library ‘Monad’. According to Windscheffel, this Leibnitzian title ‘explicitly reflected [an] understanding of the library as a space in which theological and other types of knowledge were to be unified, and form the basis of a new epistemological consensus’ (239). It’s another piece of information you’re likely to be told on the St Deiniol’s tour, and to convey the same happy and harmonious idea. But things are rarely that simple: in an article ‘On Books and the Housing of Them’ published in the following year, Gladstone remarked rather darkly: ‘Let us bow our heads to the inevitable: the day of encyclopaedic learning has gone by. It may perhaps be said that the sun set with Liebnitz’.

Matthew Bradley
University of Liverpool

Matthew Bradley was until January 2009 a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Liverpool, working on an AHRC-funded project to catalogue Gladstone’s marginalia. He is currently revising his D.Phil thesis Decadence and Theology for publication.

One Response leave one →
  1. Ruth Windscheffel permalink
    May 30, 2012

    Thank you for the very positive review, Matthew!

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Captcha loading...